There’s a long history — and a black art — behind the doctype. While working on Internet Explorer 5 for Mac, the developers at Microsoft found themselves with a surprising problem. The upcoming version of their browser had improved its standards support so much, older pages no longer rendered properly. Or rather, they rendered properly (according to specifications), but people expected them to render improperly. The pages themselves had been authored based on the quirks of the dominant browsers of the day, primarily Netscape 4 and Internet Explorer 4. IE5/Mac was so advanced, it actually broke the web.
Microsoft came up with a novel solution. Before rendering a page, IE5/Mac looked at the “doctype,” which is typically the first line of the HTML source (even before the
element). Older pages (that relied on the rendering quirks of older browsers) generally didn’t have a doctype at all. IE5/Mac rendered these pages like older browsers did. In order to “activate” the new standards support, web page authors had to opt in, by supplying the right doctype before the
This idea spread like wildfire, and soon all major browsers had two modes: “quirks mode” and “standards mode.” Of course, this being the web, things quickly got out of hand. When Mozilla tried to ship version 1.1 of their browser, they discovered that there were pages being rendered in “standards mode” that were actually relying on one specific quirk. Mozilla had just fixed its rendering engine to eliminate this quirk, and thousands of pages broke all at once. Thus was created — and I am not making this up — “almost standards mode.”
In his seminal work, Activating Browser Modes with Doctype, Henri Sivonen summarizes the different modes:
Almost Standards Mode
- In the Quirks mode, browsers violate contemporary Web format specifications in order to avoid “breaking” pages authored according to practices that were prevalent in the late 1990s.
- In the Standards mode, browsers try to give conforming documents the specification-wise correct treatment to the extent implemented in a particular browser. HTML5 calls this mode the “no quirks mode.”
- Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera (since 7.5) and IE8 also have a mode known as “Almost Standards mode,” that implements the vertical sizing of table cells traditionally and not rigorously according to the CSS2 specification. HTML5 calls this mode the “limited quirks mode.”
(You should read the rest of Henri’s article, because I’m simplifying immensely here. Even in IE5/Mac, there were a few older doctypes that didn’t count as far as opting into standards support. Over time, the list of quirks grew, and so did the list of doctypes that triggered “quirks mode.” The last time I tried to count, there were 5 doctypes that triggered “almost standards mode,” and 73 that triggered “quirks mode.” But I probably missed some, and I’m not even going to talk about the crazy things that Internet Explorer 8 does to switch between its four — four! — different rendering modes. Here’s a flowchart. Kill it. Kill it with fire.)
Now then. Where were we? Ah yes, the doctype:
That happens to be one of the 15 doctypes that trigger “standards mode” in all modern browsers. There is nothing wrong with it. If you like it, you can keep it. Or you can change it to the HTML5 doctype, which is shorter and sweeter and also triggers “standards mode” in all modern browsers.
This is the HTML5 doctype:
That’s it. Just 15 characters. It’s so easy, you can type it by hand and not screw it up.